By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Actors are animals. That's the theme of this week's hayride, which takes us to a happy barnyard and a dreary backstage rat's nest.
Over at Dallas Children's Theater, they're doing Charlotte's Web, with a charming cast donning the fur and feathers of all who populate the farm in E.B. White's beloved parable of life and death. Out at Richland College's Fannin Hall, the Classical Acting Company opens its season with the premiere of the new play Shakespeare's Keeper, a one-man grumble set behind the scenes at the Globe Theatre.
Which earns the blue ribbon as play of the week? The one starring Wilbur the pig and the literate arachnid named Charlotte. Directed by DCT founder Robyn Flatt, this production weaves a dreamy spell, doing all things good theater should: entertain, engage the emotions and elevate the spirit. It's also beautiful to look at, with the action unfolding under scenic designer Zak Herring's gleaming, 40-foot-high welded steel web, illuminated to perfection by Linda Blase's lighting scheme. To use one of Charlotte's words: Terrific.
For wee theatergoers, Charlotte's Web works as a sweet, easy-to-follow fable about the magical friendships that grow among a little girl, Fern Arable (played at the performance reviewed by Katy Tye, who alternates with Kendall Howen), a runt piglet named Wilbur (played with goofy guilelessness by Karl Schaeffer) and Charlotte (gorgeous Trisha Miller Smith), the lady spider who saves Wilbur from the sausage factory by writing startling adjectives about him in her webs. Fern spends long hours eavesdropping on the squeals and squawks that make lively conversations inside her uncle's barn.
Beyond the talking animals, White's story offers more trenchant messages for grown-ups to consider. Its opening sentence--"Where's Papa going with that ax?"--introduces death into the bucolic setting. Death, and the fear of it, remains a dominant theme right up to the touching moment when Charlotte's baby spiders take over her web and greet Wilbur with their mother's familiar "Salutations."
Parents die and children grow up to take their place. That's the natural rhythm of life, told by White's characters through one year on Zuckerman's farm. Among the animals, it's Wilbur who must learn the toughest lessons of childhood, including the value of selfless acts. Among the two-legged, it's gawky Fern, who early in the story shudders at the thought of attention from boys, but by the end is skipping off to ride the Ferris wheel at the county fair with Henry Fussy. They do grow up so fast, don't they?
Charlotte's Webalso comments cunningly on the power of persuasion. Charlotte saves Wilbur's life through advertising, spinning the words "Some pig" and "Humble" into her webs. "People believe almost everything they see in print," sighs Charlotte. The "miracle" of these web sights convinces Farmer Zuckerman (Chad Patrick Smith) that Wilbur might be more valuable alive as a tourist attraction than served up on a plate under pineapple slices. Only Mrs. Zuckerman (Becca Shivers) seems to notice that instead of being amazed at their remarkable pig, they ought to pay some attention to the talents of the writer. But as usual, nobody gives the writer any credit. (This stage version, by the way, was gracefully adapted from White's book by Joseph Robinette.)
DCT's Charlotte's Websprawls across the Baker Theater's triple stages with more than 20 actors (the adults are Equity performers) playing both humans and beasties. Much attention has been paid to creating the illusion of creatures without resorting to theme-park obviousness. Designer Leila Heise gives us an old ewe (Jody Rudman) wrapped in a fuzzy 1950s-style coat over black stockings and long black gloves. The geese (Mariel Mickens and Cole Spivey) strut on in split-tailed morning coats and bright orange sneakers; she wears a purple feathered hat. As Templeton the rat, Derik Webb skitters around in a tattered waistcoat, baggy trousers and a backwards cap. Wilbur's pink overalls need just a hint of curly pink tail in back to communicate piglet. By simply suggesting animal silhouettes, the actors remain free to explore their characters artistically through movement and voice. Webb and Rudman are especially good at this.
In the leads, Schaeffer keeps his Wilbur just dumb enough to be lovable, like the Wilbur in the book. His snorfles and "eynk-eynks" sound authentically porcine. Miller, in a sparkly black bodysuit, navigates her giant web with athletic aplomb. She speaks in a dark, throaty timbre that just fits a sexy spider.
Charlotte's Web, published in 1952, keeps being rediscovered. The second animated version of it arrives in movie theaters next year, starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Kathy Bates, Robert Redford and a dozen other stars. As they say in showbiz, this is one story that has legs. In this case, at least eight of them.
As if two and a half hours of Shakespeare weren't enough to bore a person to distraction, along comes Keeper, two and a half hours of one ugly guy talking to himself about Shakespeare and repeating, verrrry slooooowly, long chunks from many of his plays. Pickles' conceit is that Dabbs, a brown-toothed hobbit who used to be an actor but now runs props for the Globe, thinks the company's star, Richard Burbage, too old and fat to play leads anymore.